We work with a host of brilliant British Charcutiers. Over the next few months, we’ll get to know each of them a bit better via a little Q&A session on this blog.
First up, James Swift of Trealy Farm Charcuterie, who are based in Monmouthshire, Wales.
1. Hi James. First thing’s first: where were you born?
Rural Sussex, about 20 miles north of Brighton.
2. What did you want to be when you grew up?
3. How did you earn your living before becoming a charcutier?
I worked in education, at first running History A-Levels, then Government education policy around A-levels & GCSEs and standards. And writing music reviews on the side.
4. When, where and how did you learn to cure meat?
Initially by watching & helping my French grandmother cure the annual pig on my mother’s family farm in France. Then, the first thing I did when moving to Trealy Farm in 2001 was buy some pigs and a series of more or less ludicrous experiments followed with salting, smoking meat up chimneys etc. I then started to research the craft by asking French family & friends and reading books. The first time I got to do it alongside a professional on the continent was in Norcia in Italy as part of a group of Welsh pig-farmers looking to expand their horizons for their businesses.
5. Which of your products are you most proud of?
The lot of them! Our product range is designed to be looked at as a whole and comes from wanting to use as many different parts of the meat animals we process in as many different ways as possible. The idea is that no product overlaps with anything else in terms of texture or taste.
That said, ask us on any particular day what we think has come out best at that particular time. Every pig is different and, especially now that we process so many, producing products that come out pretty much the same is always hard work. I think we do pretty well at it, but every batch is going to have its little foibles, good, bad, or simply up for debate.
6. What’s the best cured meat product that you don’t (yet) make?
A loin of pork, cured, air-dried, and matured in rendered-down pork lard for about six months. Yes, I have eaten such a thing. Yes, it was mind-blowingly good. How about a whole air-dried suckling pig? Stop, stop, children might be reading this….
7. What do British charcutiers still need to learn from those on the continent?
To have more proper confidence (*not* overconfidence) in themselves, to on the one hand develop your own style and stick with it, making a ‘terroir’ if you like that will help create distinctive products; and on the other hand to take lots of advice and accept criticism.
Contrary to what might be expected, success in artisan food is linked to being sure of the science behind what you are doing. Read books, talk to people, observe and taste everything all the time – that’s all part of being scientific about what you do.
Another thing, which is more about our ‘teenage’ food culture in the UK than anything specific about British charcutiers, is not having to be constantly innovating in order to stand still. If you make three products and make them well for the rest of your life, that *should* be enough to be much better regarded than the person who gets publicity for sticking some ludicrous ingredient in a salami, giving it a ridiculous name, or dressing it up in fancy packaging. In one sense, we are *far* too obsessed with innovation and newness in UK food culture, however, to be fair, I think that that is just a necessary developmental stage that the UK is going through in order to build back up all that we have lost in terms of food culture.
8. And what do we do better?
With all of the things mentioned above, they are the ‘shadow side’. There is another side to it all and the amount of innovation going on in food in the U.K. is astonishing.
Similarly, the amount of conscious application of science and research. Perhaps most of all the amount of absorption of other cultures’ ingredients and techniques which is going on, both consciously and unconsciously, is a game-changer. I think we in the UK are second only to the phenomenal artisan meat scene in the USA for these things.
9. What could government, at any level, do (or not do) to make your working life easier?
The easy thing to say, of course, is ‘piss off’.
Actually, it’s rather more complicated than that. The UK government just does not value small business enough. Artisan food businesses are wildly popular now not just because of passing trends but because they give real job satisfaction and the opportunity for people to do the right thing and create real community and connection. We all need that *way* more than present government policies are delivering it.
The government is essentially supporting – in lots of different ways, both overt and otherwise – the major supermarkets and a few other processing and distribution companies to take over what now amounts to about 80% of the UK food chain. This is wrong on so many levels and delivers the *opposite* of the above.
On a more technical level, could the UK government stop complaining the whole time about the EU and then going on and implementing every sub-section of every regulation about food produced by them – something that no other EU country does, at least for small business. Kick the arses of Big Food for us with those regulations, please, they need it, but leave things be if people are obviously doing the right thing in small business like they do in e.g. France or Italy. Oh, and while they’re at it, could they get Big Food to pay its taxes in the UK please like small food businesses do. That would be nice and would help everyone 😉
10. What’s your ambition for the business?
On the subject of ‘the easy thing to say’ what it would be here would be ‘to pay off its blooming debts before I die’! The business is great just as it is but what it is is always evolving a bit at a time. We have great contacts in all sorts of areas, with chefs, retail stores, with customers and other producers at Farmers’ Markets and Food Festivals, with our suppliers or just with people who get in touch to say nice things or ask questions 🙂 All that contact means there are always new inputs, new ideas, and new avenues to explore. We like co-operation, and we like to grow, not so we can become some unwieldy behemoth of an organization, but just so we can supply more great products to more people and buy more great meat to support suppliers and farmers who are doing things the way they should be done.
11. Finally, you’ve been told that for exceptional medical reasons you must turn vegan tomorrow – what’s on the menu for dinner tonight?
After that, things definitely have to include White Sprouting Broccoli, perfectly cooked, with shedloads of great butter. Oh, shit, *vegan*, no butter. Now I’m really sad. Vegetarian wouldn’t have been nearly such a massive deal to be frank. Actually, since nearly all medical advice on health nowadays seems to be in the hands of Big Food and Big Pharma and most independent research and advice on health seems to say ’just eat real food, along with plenty of real fats, and cut out the sugar and cut down on the carbs’, I’d ignore the medical advice. It would be wrong 😉 So, normal stuff would be on the dinner for tonight. Meat and two veg, all home cooked.